Rod Heckelman's career
started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 1976 he took over as head pro/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in
Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference.
He has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013 and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.” He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.
By Rod Heckelman
Never before, and hopefully never again, will our industry experience something like this…a pandemic that seems to target our industry. The impact on the clubs and the industry has been unpredictable and, in turn, devastating. Immediately questions such as how to address closure, payroll, dues, became priorities. The game itself was put on hold along with the club industry…all this new territory. What makes this so interesting, is that this new territory completely exposed the basic dysfunctionality of the tennis club industry. It became quickly apparent that not having an organization in place that could have provided insight and guidance when the ?/#& hit the fan was key to the confusion and insecurity.
The health and fitness organizations have IHRSA, who have done a great job in keeping all their members informed and up to date from day one. They have also provided consultation and advice for many of the issues. Fortunately, there are many multi-purpose clubs that also have tennis that are members of IHRSA, so they had help. Software companies like Club Automation have also been providing insight and help where they can. But the tennis industry is still looking for leadership in the area of the club industry, especially the smaller more vulnerable clubs. It is hopeful that the USTA might step with their new task force that will focus on the business of tennis, especially the club industry.
It will not be an easy task to get a handle on the business end of tennis. It may be the most fragmented organization in the sports industry. The variations of tennis clubs are immense and challenging. There are membership owned clubs, privately owned clubs, corporately owned clubs and recreational public facilities, all operating differently. They will also have to contend with the many variations in operating caused by location, income variations, weather, and history. This task force is in for a tough go. The USTA is also in the process of working with the new Tennis Industry Association in hopes of having a source for data and experts in the field.
The big challenge for the USTA will be transitioning from being organizers and facilitators to becoming the recognized authority in the field. Add to that the USTA’s business model is that of a nonprofit organization, venturing into a profit-motivated industry is an area yet to be navigated. The recent history of trying different approaches to “Growing the Game,” and the certification of tennis pros, is a clear sign that they are moving in the direction of taking more control. Whether or not they will be successful will largely be the result of whom they hire, but equally important, whom they listen to. Add to that the current enormous pandemic challenge and you have quite a task to take on.
The pandemic challenge started with the closure of the tennis clubs when “Shelter in Place” was required. That turned out to be a little sketchy and inconsistent. There were some areas more impacted than others, so the rules varied. The mandate of people not gathering in large groups seemed to address the club house, but the tennis courts seemed to be another issue. The idea that players are at a great distance was a bit misleading…that fact is they share the use of a tennis ball could easily create cross-contaminate. Once everything became defined and critical, the verdict from the health department to “Shelter in Place,” meant that the loss of income was eminent to tennis clubs.
The issue then moved to the impact of dues and payroll. For many, this was a case by case for each club. Membership owned clubs would deal with this issue completely differently than privately owned clubs, and corporate-owned clubs would also take on a completely different approach. For that reason, sharing information on how this was to be handled was not viable. Each business had its own issues and variations on membership loyalty that needed to be considered. For most, it was sitting back and wait to see how our government was going to act on the financial burdens of small businesses. As members began to growl for being billed for not being able to use closed facilities, the managers/owners found themselves in a Mexican standoff, not just between them and the members, but also the staff hoping to financially find relief.
Most businesses have wanted to prioritize their employees in any way they can...easier said than done with each day bringing new information and new criteria. As most clubs winded down their facility, stock was taken as to the impact on the staff, members, and owners. Someone was going to have to pick up the slack, who that remained unknown as this was all new turf, and again, no one at the top of the industry helping with advice or guidance. Many clubs took to maintenance while closed, i.e. pool chemicals, in-depth cleaning, and in that sense could keep some employed and make some progress. They had to be careful organizing any projects for the maintenance people while closed, as it could be a violation of the command to “Shelter in Place.” The real anxiety rose as members demanded refunds, stop of payment and of course because our industry has such a strong relationship between the membership and the staff, they wanted the staff to be taken care of.
So have there been any solutions? Some stayed the course and hoped that they could survive in the short run. Others started with plans to help the staff and still try to collect some of the dues. The Bay Clubs offered their members an option to either pay 100%, 50% or zero, their choice. This kept most from leaving, but the result of that model is yet to be seen. Other clubs just stopped charging dues and hoped to get bailed out by the government. IHRSA had gone to the government on behalf of the industry, which would include tennis, and asked that the clubs be included in the small business relief program. Some clubs allowed their members just to quit, again with hopes that this event is short-lived and that most members will stay loyal and continue to financially support their facility. Many clubs that had fitness classes went on-line with their classes, keeping their members engaged and some of their staff still making wages.
Lessons learned were many. First, the manager/owner needed to create an early dialogue for their members. Social media today can be a nightmare with misinformation and hearsay. You didn’t want to let the social media dictate the dialogue through gossip or a lack of information. The members and the staff needed to know that there is a plan in place that will address most of the possible scenarios. The management needed to take control, show leadership and confidence. There also needed to be in place a database that allowed the club to reach their membership with updates and policy changes. We found out that getting everyone’s contact number or email needs to be part of the program before it becomes a necessity.
At the time of writing this article, there are still many unanswered questions and a great deal of angst. We’ve never been down this road before, it could well be one with many turns and windy ways, but it is not going to be a dead end. It’s been said before and is worth saying again, the game is bigger than any one person or any one organization, but it is also bigger than any virus Recovery will just take time and patience, and after that, some very hard work and dedication. As mentioned earlier, if there is a silver lining to all this, it is that we now realize how important it is to have our organization unite and act as one.